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The death of democracy?

By Duncan Graham - posted Tuesday, 1 July 2014

There are two scenarios following the 9 July direct election for Indonesia’s next president.  Both are frightening.

In the first Prabowo Subianto, a former Kopassus (Special Forces) commander with a questionable human rights record wins.  He then takes the nation of 240 million people back to the authoritarian army-backed era of his former father-in-law, second president Soeharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years before being ousted by democratic reformers in 1998.

In the second Prabowo loses to his rival, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi), but refuses to accept the result.  Prabowo has already formed a powerful political coalition that includes Islamic parties and Golkar, Soeharto’s old party.  He holds a clear majority in the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR, the People’s Legislative Assembly, so has the numbers to get his way.


Most likely are appeals to the courts, which are notoriously corrupt. Finding irregularities in the poll to justify a legal challenge or recount, or seizing power in the interim would not be difficult.  In the DPR election in April allegations of vote buying and other illegalities were widespread.

Although there’d be protests, the most popular media outlets are in the hands of moguls who openly side with Prabowo; the reformers are generally too respectful of democracy to promote mayhem.

The military are experts in creating chaos as they did in 1999 when the East Timor referendum resulted in massive support for independence. This could precipitate armed intervention and the suspension of democracy as in Fiji and Thailand “for community safety”.   However an immediate collapse is discounted by observers, largely because the World Cup and the holy fasting month of Ramadhan are underway.

Once the election is over the 175 million potential voters in the world’s most populous Islamic nation will return to the real business of performing their religious rites leading to Idul Fitri at the end of July.  The country won’t get back to work until the second week of August, so by then the urgency for action will have to be rekindled.

The son of an economist and minister in the Soeharto government, the fearsomely ambitious Prabowo was educated overseas and taught to be a soldier in the US.  He was later stationed in East Timor. Although he now professes to be a true believer, democracy doesn’t feature in his record.

His campaigning has been simple – to project an image of tegas (being resolute) and exercising authority, using military props, mass rallies that smack of 1930s fascism and Soekarno era uniforms. 


In a country where perception is reality the electorate appears to be swinging his way, convinced that the nation needs a soldier – even one discharged for exceeding his authority and then seeking exile in Jordan - to handle the sprawling archipelago’s complex problems.

Using the Big Lie propaganda technique, and backed by the enormous wealth of his brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo hammers the message that Indonesia’s problems are caused by bocor (leaking) of money and resources to undefined overseas interests. His opponent says change needs to come from within, calling for a Mental Revolution – but this idea is too amorphous to grasp easily.

Two months ago Jokowi, a furniture factory owner, appeared to have an unassailable lead.  The mild-mannered former provincial mayor had become a media darling through his blusukan policy of listening to the ordinary folk on their turf. For Indonesians this was revolutionary stuff – they’d only ever known politicians to be arrogant and contemptuous.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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